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Martin J. Sherwin’s Interview

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Martin J. Sherwin is a historian and professor at George Mason University, specializing in the development of atomic weapons and nuclear policy. With Kai Bird, Sherwin co-authored “American Prometheus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, Sherwin discusses Oppenheimer’s childhood, family life, and personality, including his love of the mountains of New Mexico, and his leadership at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. He also discusses why Oppenheimer did not support building the hydrogen bomb. Sherwin reflects on the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, arguing that the atomic bombs were not necessary to end the war with Japan.

Date of Interview:
April 24, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C. It is Monday, April 24, 2017. I have with me distinguished historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner Martin J. Sherwin. My first question to him is to say his name and spell it for us.

Martin Sherwin: Martin J. Sherwin, M-A-R-T-I-N, middle initial J—actually, middle name Jay, J-A-Y, Sherwin, S-H-E-R-W-I-N.

Kelly:  Can you tell us when [J. Robert] Oppenheimer was born and where, and who his parents were?

Sherwin: He was born in 1905 [misspoke: 1904] in New York City. His father was from Germany, came over when he was a teenager. He was brought over by his older brother, and ended up making a lot of money. His mother was an artist.

He had a very cultured environment which he was brought up in. He lived on Riverside Drive in New York City, in a very protected environment. His mother had fear of germs. For example, just to give you a sense of his upbringing, she wouldn’t let him go to a barber shop in the city. She had the barber brought to the house to make sure that he wasn’t exposed to germs. Needless to say, he wasn’t allowed to eat any street food or anything like that. Overprotected childhood. 

Kelly: When he was a young boy, maybe you can talk about the Ethical Culture School that he went to.

Sherwin: It was quite obvious from the beginning of his life that Oppenheimer was extremely smart. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that he was a genius, a budding genius. For example, he got very interested in mineralogy, in rocks. He was given a collection of minerals, which he began to study very seriously, as he did most anything that he was interested in. 

There’s this wonderful story of his sitting down at the typewriter and writing a letter to the New York Mineralogical Society about some questions and about what he was doing. It was so impressive that they invited him to give a lecture. Of course, they thought he was an adult! This twelve-year-old shows up at the New York Mineralogy Society to give a lecture, and everybody’s jaw drops. They have to get a box to put in front of the podium so he can see over it. He gives a lecture at age twelve. I might say the rest is history, in the sense of he continued to really astonish people with his intellect.

You mentioned the Ethical Culture School. There are two things, I think, to say about that. The first is that it represented his family’s attitude towards Judaism. They were Jewish, but they were completely secular. His father was part of the group that started the Ethical Culture School, and that’s where Robert went to school. When he was there, he just shined as an exceptional young man. It didn’t matter if it was in English or English class or philosophy or chemistry, science. He was at the top of the class. That’s the real positive side of Oppenheimer.

The negative side of his life as a child is that his entire being, so to speak, was in his brain. He had not yet developed social skills, and he didn’t have many friends. He was sort of rather aloof. He was completely engaged in the intellectual life.

There’s a story of his saying to a cousin, “Ask me a question in Latin, and I’ll answer it in Greek.” That’s the kind of a kid he was. Very, very unusual. He therefore had a lot of growing up to do in terms of being a social human being, which he finally became.

Kelly: That’s a great story. I do remember thinking about mineralogy. As kind of a next story is, when he was taking a vacation with his family in Europe, and he was climbing in the mountains in Germany. Tell us that and what it led to, tell us about that.

Sherwin: I’m not sure I remember that. 

Kelly: Oh, okay. It was the summer before he was to enter Harvard. His family let him go out in the rain, or you know, nasty weather to collect minerals, because that was his passion. He came down with a terrible illness.

Sherwin: Yeah. He got extreme. It was with his brother Frank [Oppenheimer], and that’s an interesting relationship that ought to be mentioned. He was, I don’t know, nine years or so older than Frank. He, in effect, became a second father to Frank. He took that responsibility on, I think, with great enthusiasm. He enjoyed the role of being the older brother, almost father, giving Frank advice, taking care of him, guiding him through his path to adulthood.

The letters between Robert and Frank are extremely interesting. They’re not, what I would say, they’re not the normal kind of letter that an older brother writes to a younger brother. It’s almost more like an uncle writing to a young man. Frank becomes a physicist, an experimental physicist, rather than a theoretical one. That was his slight independence. He was a very good physicist, and it was quite an appropriate career for Frank.

Anyways, sort of back to hiking in Europe, yes, they went for an exploration. They ran into some very bad weather, and Robert got quite ill. It delayed his going to college for a year.

Kelly: He was driving his mother crazy, being cooped up in the apartment. She prevailed upon one of his high school teachers or somebody to take him out West.

Sherwin: Well, yes, there was that, too. I remember one of the incidents. His mother asked him how he felt. He said, “I feel as badly as I do when I have to practice the piano.” That was the end of piano lessons. She realized how he really despised it.

That really tells you two things about his character, and his relationship to his parents. His mother was a very sensitive woman, and she paid a lot of attention to Robert, more attention than she probably should have. Nevertheless, even though he hated playing the piano, she didn’t pick up how much he disliked it—until that moment when he was really ill, and he made the analogy between the way he felt and the way he felt when he was practicing the piano. She was sensible enough to understand, “Let’s forget the piano.”

Robert was one of the only physicists that I’ve studied who was not inclined to be musical. He liked to listen to music, but unlike Teller, he didn’t play the piano, unlike Einstein, he didn’t play the violin, and so on. Sort of a lacuna in his physics personality.

Sherwin: His father began to be concerned about Robert’s, I suppose, lack of social skills, you would say, and his apparent physical frailty. Now, a comment about physical frailty: he was skinny and he was not athletic, but he was a very strong personality. When he wanted to do something, whether it was physical or intellectual, he just pushed on to do it, and made himself do it.

For example, he was a very strong walker. He would walk for miles. When he was out of the city, it was hiking in mountains, or something like that. They had a summer home, and he loved to sail. We talk about some of the instances where he went out in storms and his parents were terrified. “Where is Robert? Where’s the boat, the Trimethy?” But he was a very skilled sailor.

His father encouraged him to go out West with one of his teachers from the Ethical Culture School, go out West during the summer. Robert learned to ride, and that became one of the most important parts of his life. He ended up buying a cabin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which when he first saw it, he said, “Hot dog!” The woman he was with said, “Perro caliente” [“hot dog” in Spanish]. That’s what they called it. That became a center for physicists to come, friends of his, during summers. They would ride all over the mountains. Robert was a rather skilled horseman.

Frank tells the story where Robert would go out and ride all night. Go out for days with a pint of whiskey of a couple of candy bars, and some raisins and things like that, and just ride through the mountains alone. Some people say he knew those mountains better than anybody else.

He becomes a very, I would say, well-rounded personality, from a childhood in which he was anything but well-rounded. A very interesting evolution into adulthood.

Kelly:  How did he fare when he went back to college and graduate school? How did he deal with suddenly being with all these other cohorts, people his age?

Sherwin: Well, college is interesting. He ends up going to Harvard, and Harvard is a place then—and in certain ways now, but not the same—where students who were exceptionally bright effectively navigated through the curriculum on their own.

A couple of stories about Harvard. He had one or two friends, and that was it, also people who were extremely smart. He started off as a chemist, as a chemistry major, switched to physics, and decided as he went into his senior year that he wanted to do some graduate work in physics. He was such a quick learner that he blasted through the undergraduate physics curriculum very quickly.

In order for an undergraduate to take graduate courses, you had to apply to the Physics Department and write a letter explaining what you’ve studied, what you know, and so on, and why you should be admitted into this graduate physics course. Robert lists all the books that he’s read.

The story is that when the Physics Department faculty met, one of the more distinguished physicists on the faculty looked at this list and said, “This kid’s a liar. He could not possibly have read this book and that book, and so on. But we should let him into the course simply because he knows these books existed.” That’s esoteric his reading was. Of course, he had read everything. He was admitted and he did well and he got an A. That was Robert.

Kelly: Wow. After Harvard, he went on to graduate school in England.

Sherwin: He was admitted to the Cavendish Laboratory in England. It was an experimental fellowship, experimental physics. Now, Robert’s brain was oriented towards theoretical physics, and, as I mentioned earlier, his athletic skills were very limited. He had zero hand-eye coordination. There are two kinds of athletic skills. There’s running or horseback riding or sailing, and then there’s baseball, tennis, golf, football, which are all hand-eye coordination things. He had none of that.

He gets to the Cavendish and he’s given the assignment to deal with film, certain kinds of film that he had to cut and do very precise activities with. I don’t know exactly what they are, but neither did he, by the way [Laughter]. He hated it. I mean, he just couldn’t do it. It was not only impossible for him to do, but even if he could do it, he wouldn’t have liked it. It was the kind of activity that just didn’t fit his mind or his personality.

There are these stories of—somebody caught him in the laboratory by a blackboard. There’s always a blackboard where there are physicists. And writing on the blackboard: “The point is, the point is, the point is.” He couldn’t figure out the point.  Then his friend [Francis] Fergusson tells the story of knocking on his door one day, and hearing this groaning sound inside. He opens the door and there’s Robert rolling on the floor all bunched up in a fetal position, just groaning back and forth. He was in very bad shape at the Cavendish. The story is that he was even on the verge of suicide at that point.

What happened in the spring of that year was that he discovered quantum physics, and that was a marvelous discovery. It turned him around completely. He fell in love with this subject, and within two months had written an article that was published. He was off the next year to Göttingen to study with Max Born in theoretical physics. That’s the point at which there’s almost a “Ta-da, ta-da.” Oppenheimer’s life changes. He finds his enthusiasm for life in terms of his intellectual commitment. There are great stories about what happens in Göttingen.

Kelly: In terms of his relationship with the other physicists?

Sherwin: My favorite story is about the seminar he was taking with all of the other graduate students and Max Born. Oppenheimer is so enamored with quantum physics that he cannot keep his mouth shut in this seminar. He is always, “I got the answer! Oh, you can do that in a way that’s easier. That’s not the best way to figure that problem out.” He even says that to Professor Born.

Now, remember this is Germany in the 1920s, you know, it’s not the United States in the 1960s. There’s a different culture in terms of dealing with the professor. But Robert is uncontrollable. He is so—from the point of view of his fellow students—obnoxious, that they write a letter to Professor Born and say they’re going to stop coming to class if he doesn’t do something about containing Oppenheimer. Because they can’t get a word in edgewise, and they think that he’s controlling the class rather than Professor Born, who’s a very mild-mannered guy, and a very shrewd student of personalities.

Rather than scolding Oppenheimer, Born makes an appointment with him and tells him to come into his office, let’s say the next day or something like that. Robert comes into the office, and Professor Born has arranged to have someone knock on the door and call him out. He leaves the letter that was sent to him by the students on his desk in a place where Robert could not help but see it if he’s sitting across from the desk. Born leaves, and Robert, of course, sees the letter and reads it.

This is a great and important moment in his life. He, of course, is incredibly embarrassed, but comes to understand that even if you know all the answers, it is not a good thing to constantly let people know that. You got to be a little strategic about your intellect and your insights. I would say he absorbs that lesson 60%, because 40%, he’s always, when he’s in seminars, for the rest of his life, he’s always in there making the point that “X, Y, or Z is wrong, and this is the way to do it.”

That connects with his behavior at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Do we want to move to that?

Kelly: Yeah, sure.

Sherwin: Robert Oppenheimer was an extraordinary director of the Manhattan Project. Every physicist I interviewed for American Prometheus said that the bomb would not have been completed when it was if it wasn’t for Oppenheimer’s leadership, that he was a full participant in the process of figuring out how to do various things.

He was always present at every important seminar. He would listen very carefully to the discussion that was going on. Usually, these seminars were held because it was not clear how to proceed. Usually there was a significant debate between people who  said, “Let’s do this,” and others who said, “Let’s do that,” “This won’t work,” “That will work,” “That won’t work,” “This will work,” et cetera.

Robert would listen, and by the end of a certain period of time, he would intervene and explain, “There are parts of what both of you are saying that, in fact, don’t agree. But you don’t realize that there are parts of what you are saying where you agree. And this is—” you know, and he would explain that, and would help people move forward. That was a process that was repeated time and time again.

Now, why was he such a great leader? For two reasons. One, he knew everything that was going on in the laboratory. He knew what was going on in the machine shop, and he knew all the people in the machine shop. He knew what was going on in the theoretical division. He knew everything that was going on in the theoretical division and in the experimental division, et cetera. He had both the administrative capacity to organize Los Alamos, the laboratory, and the intellectual capacity to understand the complexities of all the work that was being done.

It was extraordinary, and it was very much an act of willpower. That’s something that I would emphasize about Oppenheimer. He was the kind of personality who drove himself from the inside out to fit into whatever environment he was in that he wanted to succeed at. The drive to be successful in anything he did was a dominant form of his personality.

We have this young Oppenheimer, who is a social misfit, who realizes as he becomes an adult that in order to succeed, he needs to have social skills. His social skills are imposed by him from the inside out. They are not natural. Time after time, Oppenheimer transforms himself to fit into the environment that he’s operating in. It’s really an amazing sort of story of will and skill and intellect all working together to be successful. But it’s also a story of what happens when you are operating, so to speak, in a social environment in which you have sort of recreated your personality to function in that environment.

Later on, to jump ahead to the McCarthy period, when he begins to be interrogated by Congressional committees, when he is put in a situation where he’s being attacked and he feels vulnerable, the construction of his personality begins to crumble. During a few of these hearings, he does some really terrible things. He tells the committee that some of his students are in fact communists and left-wing, and things that he truly regrets. But they sort of come out, because he’s fearful. He’s terrified of what’s happening to him in these environments.

Kelly: Tell us, for people who don’t know, how was it that General [Leslie R.] Groves chose him? Because all of the things you described were not obvious when he was at Berkeley.

Sherwin: Back to the Manhattan Project. How did Oppenheimer become the director of Los Alamos? Here’s a guy who is a professor at the University of California, and sometimes at Caltech. He is very active in left-wing activities at Berkeley during the 1930s. He donates money to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

He’s a real left-wing, liberal enthusiast for Jeffersonian democracy and Roosevelt New Deal. He’s not a member of the Communist Party, but he’s got a lot of friends who are members of the Communist Party, including his brother Frank, including Frank’s wife [Jackie]. His own wife, Kitty, had been a member of the party, and married to a member of the party who was killed in Spain [Joe Dallet].

How can someone like that be selected by General Groves to be the head of the Manhattan Project? Well, Groves is a very shrewd student of personalities, and Groves is an incredibly ambitious individual. When he is given this job of being in charge of what became the Manhattan Project, he’s looking for people to run the various laboratories who will succeed. That’s all he cares about. He’s got this job now, and his goal is to be successful.

He interviews all the physicists who are heads of laboratories all over the county: Ernest Lawrence in Berkeley, others at the University of Chicago, at Columbia, at Caltech, et cetera. He interviews Oppenheimer, because some people tell him he has to interview Oppenheimer. Now, Oppenheimer has never run anything more complicated than a seminar at Berkeley. This is not a very good background for running Los Alamos.

Nevertheless, Robert really wants this job. Robert is capable of understanding what would be necessary to make this laboratory work. When Groves interviews him, he walks away saying, “Of all the people I’ve interviewed, this guy understands what needs to be done in a way that none of these other people who have had all this experience as heads of laboratories understand.” There’s a connection, even though they’re totally different personalities, there’s a connection that Groves senses between himself and Robert Oppenheimer. That connection is ambition. They both want the same thing desperately: to succeed at this.

So Groves selects Robert to be the head of the Los Alamos laboratory. Groves’ security people are, “Are you kidding? You know, this guy’s a lefty. He’s probably a communist. Impossible!” But Groves overrules them. Groves supports Robert throughout the war. He even supports Robert after the war when the FBI and Lewis Strauss of the Atomic Energy Commission try to destroy him. There is a very tight bond between these two very, very different people.

Kelly: They saw in each other, as Stan Norris likes to say, the means to achieving their own ambition.

Sherwin: Yes. The ambition of doing something great for the war. Groves is a military man, and it’s very natural for him to say, “I don’t want this job,” which he didn’t. “But I’ve got it and now I’m going to succeed.” That was Groves’ personality.

Robert: “I want this job. I want to do something for the war effort, and I want to combine my incredible physics abilities to help win the war.” That’s their bond.

Kelly: Tell us a little bit about his relationship with Kitty [Oppenheimer] and how that worked out, how that played out for him and them.

Sherwin: Robert Oppenheimer’s life before he goes to Berkeley in the 1920s—he’s socially inept, as I said. This is also true in terms of his relationship with women. He’s no ladies’ man. But he falls in love with a woman in Berkeley named Jean Tatlock, who is studying medicine, and who has had a very tight on-and-off relationship with left-wing politics. Robert is completely enamored with her. She, in effect, introduces him to politics, and to left-wing politics in particular. But she doesn’t want to marry him. Robert tries to marry her on several occasions. She rejects him on that.

In 19—I think it was ’39, or 1940—he’s at a garden party at Caltech when Kitty Puening—who is married to a man named [Richard] Harrison, and who had been married, her previous husband was killed in the Spanish Civil War—sees Robert. The story is, at least as she tells it, it was: “Wow, that’s an interesting looking guy.”

They get together and they start going out. To make a long, complicated, and very interesting story short, they have an affair. She gets pregnant, she divorces her husband. Robert and Kitty get married, a quick Las Vegas/Reno sort of marriage. They live ever after, and notice I didn’t say “happily.”

They are devoted to each other. It’s not a rocky marriage. It’s just, I would say, a difficult marriage because of the complexity of Robert’s life, of their personalities, of the environment in which they live, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know what it would have been like if they got married and there was no war and he was a professor at Berkeley for the rest of his life. It might have been a little different. But the war changed everything for everybody, and Robert and Kitty were no exception.

Kitty begins to drink heavily at Los Alamos. Robert’s also a drinker, he’s very famous for his martinis. A lot of their life is affected by her drinking. They have two children. They’re not great parents. They are so absorbed with their own lives, and the issues that really overwhelm them sometimes. Despite that, there is a total commitment to each other.

Kelly: Interesting. Rushing back to Los Alamos and thinking them and their tiny family in the tiny house, or the modest cottage, do you have any stories about his interaction or her interaction with Peter and Toni, the two children?

Sherwin: Yes. When Toni is born, I think it’s 1943 [1944], very shortly thereafter, Kitty leaves, takes a little sabbatical from parenting. Robert, of course, is there, but Robert is running Los Alamos, so he can’t take care of Peter. I think Kitty takes Peter with her. There’s this new baby. One of the friends of Robert and Kitty, the wife, [Pat] Sherr, takes care of the baby. Robert periodically comes and visits, but he never asks, apparently, to see the baby. At one point, Mrs. Sherr says to Robert, “Don’t you want to see her at all?”

“Yeah, oh, okay.” And he does. There’s a story where Robert says, “You really love this child, don’t you?” After X number of weeks.

She says, “Oh, yes, she’s a beautiful baby.”

“Would you like to adopt her?” he says.

Of course, she’s absolutely taken aback. “You’re a wonderful—why would you even suggest something like that?”

He says something like, “I can’t love her enough.”

It’s a very strange moment, and it’s a moment that provides a lot of insight into his personality and his sense of himself. What he is saying, in effect, is that, “I am not worthy of this child. I don’t have the time, the commitment that this child deserves in terms of parental love.” Of course, running Los Alamos 24/7, and it’s a 24/7 job, he doesn’t. But of course, it’s a little different once Los Alamos ends. But he feels sort of guilty for not being able to be a more devoted parent. A very interesting moment in Oppenheimer’s life, I think.

Kelly:  When Kitty returns, Kitty doesn’t seem to compensate for his lack of—

Sherwin: No, I think that she is not the modern hovering parent. Something halfway between Kitty and current parenting practices would have been just right. But the two children are, I think, brought up in an environment where they have to do a lot of their own navigation. Toni does a little better than Peter on that end, I think.

Kelly:  Not an easy family to be a child.

Sherwin: No, no, no.

Kelly:  I’m trying to touch on all the big themes for the Manhattan Project. Talk about Trinity site and his reaction to the success of the bomb.

Sherwin: Trinity is very, very interesting. Trinity, July 16th, 1945, this is when the plutonium bomb design is going to be tested. There’s something about that that is not discussed in the literature, that I think Kai [Bird] and I should have made a much bigger deal about in American Prometheus, and everybody who writes about the Manhattan Project should recognize.

There were two kinds of bombs that were being developed at Los Alamos. The first bomb is a uranium bomb. That bomb is never tested. It doesn’t have to be tested. It’s a very simple design. At the back end of the bomb, there’s a plug or a bullet of uranium-235, and at the front end of the bomb, there’s a target of uranium-235. If you wanted to explode at 15,000 feet, you set it to explode at 15,000 feet. At that point, the bullet of uranium is fired just by an explosive charge into the target of uranium, and it blows up. That’s the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and that worked. That did not have to be tested.

Whether or not the plutonium bomb, the so-called implosion bomb, worked on July 16th, 1945, it really didn’t matter. Because they already had a uranium bomb that worked, that was sure to work, you know, unless somebody forgot to put a plug in or something.

But all of the energy, intellectual energy and anxiety, angst of the Manhattan Project went into, “Is this implosion bomb going to work?” If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t have made any difference in terms of Hiroshima. There might not have been a second bomb for Nagasaki. Neither of them were necessary to end the war in the summer of 1945. But in any case, everything became focused on this July 16th test. It’s a very interesting question of why. I think the answer is probably, well, because this was going to be the first test of an atomic bomb.

Now, just to back up a minute and say sort of, what is the implosion bomb and why did it have to be tested? It turns out that plutonium is much more active than uranium. You couldn’t fire a plug of plutonium into a target of plutonium, because by the time it got—no matter how fast it went—it got halfway there, it would begin to react and what they would call fizzle. You wouldn’t get the full effect of the explosion.

They designed something that was shaped like a grapefruit that was round, about the size of a grapefruit, with explosives all around it. It would be crushed to the size of a golf ball, which would make it go boom. Whether this was going to work or not was not clear. But if it did work, it was a much more efficient design than the uranium bomb design, and it would be the future of nuclear weapons, at least the near future. That’s another indicator of the view that nuclear weapons were being thought about for the post-war world, not just for the war.

The July 16th Alamogordo test tells you a lot more about the attitude towards nuclear weapons in the post-war period than it tells you about nuclear weapons in the wartime period.

Kelly:  Now, there’s been a lot of literature written about Oppenheimer’s recitation of “Now we are death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Sherwin: This wonderful movie, “The Day After Trinity,” which many people watching this video probably have seen, and in it, Frank Oppenheimer is asked that question. Frank was with Robert at Los Alamos—I mean at Alamogordo. He was asked, “Well, what was the first reaction? What did Robert say?”

Frank says, “Well, I think he said, ‘It worked. It worked.’” [Laughter]

So, “I have become death, destroyer of worlds,” I think was something Robert thought of that he should have said at the time. Because “It worked” isn’t kind of like, you know, “Nuts!” at Battle of the Bulge, General [Anthony Clement McAuliffe].

Robert was enamored with the Bhagavad Gita, Hindu scripture. He always reached for the esoteric. I. I. Rabi once said, “Robert would have been a lot better off if he had focused on the Talmud,” since he was Jewish. But that was too close to home, not very interesting. A lot of people did that. Robert, being Robert, preferred to learn Sanskrit, which he did when he was at Berkeley in the 1930s, and studied the Bhagavad Gita. “I have become death, destroyer of worlds” seemed like a quite appropriate thing to say at that moment of the dawn of the nuclear age.

I adopted that comment for my first book, called A World Destroyed, about Hiroshima. I think it’s a good idea, too.

Kelly:  Do you think that—from all that you’ve studied of his thought—that he was regretful that he ever introduced this to the world?

Sherwin: I don’t think Robert Oppenheimer ever quite was able to sort out the experience and the responsibility for Hiroshima. I don’t know if anybody would be able to do that, when you think about it. Because we’re talking about something that, if you believe in God, it’s almost the kind of thing that only a deity has the right to impose on human beings. We’re talking about creating something that has changed world history. Human beings are now capable of destroying the planet, of destroying the species. If we had had a nuclear war during the Cold War, when there was 60,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union, we would have destroyed the planet and the human species.

We operate as human beings in the moment, and the moment between 1943 and 1945 was World War II. The moment for Oppenheimer was Los Alamos, and the challenge to build a nuclear weapon before the Germans possibly built a nuclear weapon. From his point of view, and the point of view of all the scientists who were working on it, there was really no choice. Because how could we possibly let the Germans beat us to this weapon that could change the outcome of the war? That’s one element of it.

The other element is very personal, in terms of ambitions. We talked about that before, between Robert’s ambition to help win the war, and General Groves’ ambition to build the bomb to win the war. When Robert is involved—in kind of a peripheral way, but still, nevertheless involved—at the end of war with the question of whether these weapons that have been created at Los Alamos should be used, he enthusiastically, or at least determinedly, said, “Yes, it should be used.” His argument is that, only by using these weapons will the governments of the world understand that we have entered a new age in which war is impossible. It’s suicidal. It will bring an end to war.

In many speeches after the war, he makes this point, that war is longer possible, and that is the hope of the nuclear age. But he also believes, before the war ends, that the United States is going to have to invade Japan. If nuclear weapons are used, we may not have to do that. So there are multiple reasons for using the weapon.

But after the war, he learns very quickly that it was not necessary to use nuclear weapons to end the war. It’s very clear that as soon as the Russians, the Soviets, entered the war, the Japanese were going to have to surrender. They could not fight a two-front war, and the Japanese were more terrified of the Soviets taking Hokkaido and being part of the occupation than they were of surrendering to the United States.

He learns that, and he says in speeches and in one article that, “We had used the bomb on an essentially defeated enemy.” That’s a quote. “We used the bomb on an essentially defeated enemy.” In that sense, he regrets it. But he still believes that using the bomb is a demonstration of the impossibility of war.

After the war, he works very hard for the international control of atomic energy, which becomes the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which really should be called the “Oppenheimer Report,” because he is the one who designs it. It’s turned over to Bernard Baruch, who changes it and makes it impossible for the Soviets to accept, if it was ever likely that the Soviets would have accepted it. By the end of 1946, it’s quite clear that we’re not going to have the international control of atomic energy. The groundwork is set for the nuclear arms race, which emerges full-blown in August of 1949, when the Soviets test their first nuclear weapon.

So, Oppenheimer, looking back—yes, he regrets it, because it wasn’t needed to end the war against Japan. It was used on an essentially defeated enemy. Two, the demonstration of the bomb, which was supposed to awaken the world to the danger of nuclear weapons and the need to have an international control of atomic energy commission to really get rid of nuclear weapons, that doesn’t happen. We now live in that world.

Kelly: Did he write anything further about the fact that we came to the precipice of nuclear war, but no country has started a full-blown—

Sherwin: No. Oppenheimer’s life between the moment of the failure of the international control of atomic energy, which we can officially date from the vote in the United Nations in December of 1946, to the Oppenheimer hearings in the spring of 1954, Oppenheimer’s life is immersed in the process of trying to minimize the role of nuclear weapons in American foreign policy.

The pinnacle of that effort is in October of 1949. He is the head of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission. The question is put to the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission whether the United States should initiate a crash program to build a hydrogen bomb, which Edward Teller and Ernest Lawrence and Lewis Strauss and Senator Brien McMahon are pushing as a way of having a quantum leap beyond the Soviet Union now that they have tested an atomic bomb, which they did in late August, August 29th, 1949.

Oppenheimer and the rest of the committee unanimously vote against a crash program for the hydrogen bomb, for several reasons. One reason is that the design that Edward Teller has submitted for building a hydrogen bomb is not going to work. All the scientists agreed that it won’t work, and it won’t. That’s number one.

Number two, they argue that a hydrogen bomb is something quite different than an atomic bomb. What’s the difference? An atomic bomb—the physics of fission, splitting an atom—make it impossible to build a bomb much more powerful than 50 kilotons, about two and a half times the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb. Let’s say three times the size, the explosive power.

A hydrogen bomb, should it work, has no limit to size. If you’ve seen “Dr. Strangelove,” the possibility of a bomb that would end human life—it’s possible. It’s hydrogen bombs, they can be built as large as possible, I mean, as large as you want to build them. They argue that this is a weapon that can destroy the world. It’s a weapon that’s too big to be used against military forces. It’s a weapon to destroy cities, kill civilian populations. It’s beyond immoral.

Then, the third thing they point out is, “Look, we’re way ahead of the Soviets. Even if they should build a hydrogen bomb, which we would know about, because you can’t build one without testing it, we have so many atomic bombs in our arsenal that we have a perfectly good deterrent.” So they are totally against it.

President [Harry] Truman reverses that a few months later. In fact, Los Alamos and then Livermore work on the hydrogen bomb project. The Korean War spurs this project onward. Hans Bethe, for example, who refuses to initially work on the hydrogen bomb, after the Korean War breaks out, he goes to Los Alamos to work on it. At that point, the arms race is in effect out of control. We spend the rest of the Cold War in this insane situation where both the United States and the Soviet Union have enough nuclear weapons in their arsenals to destroy each other many, many times over.

Oppenheimer, between 1950 and 1953, when Lewis Strauss gives him the letter in December charging him with security violations, works desperately to try to minimize that. He proposes, for example, that the United States concentrate on tactical nuclear weapons as opposed to these huge hydrogen bombs. What happens is that we get huge hydrogen bombs and tactical nuclear weapons. You know, “Hey, those are good, too. Why not build them?”

The result of the Oppenheimer hearings is that Strauss—Lewis Strauss, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission—and J. Edgar Hoover succeed in, in effect, destroying Oppenheimer’s influence completely, neutralizing it. He’s no longer part of the policymaking, or even commentary community on the nuclear issue. He just drops out. End of story.

After he loses his security clearance, he, in effect, accepts the idea that—I think it was President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, the metaphor President Eisenhower suggested, of putting a wall between Oppenheimer and security and atomic energy, which is kind of ridiculous because you would have to put a wall in his brain. But he accepts that.

He is the director of the Institute for Advanced Study. He concentrates on issues of education, and he lectures in the United States and around the world, but not on anything related to foreign policy, to atomic energy. He focuses on educational issues. He’s essentially been silenced.

Kelly: And tragically, he gets cancer.

Sherwin: He dies of throat cancer, which is not the result of his work on atomic energy. It’s his heavy smoking. First cigarettes, and then his pipe. It’s a lesson to all you young people. Don’t smoke!

Kelly: How old was he when he died?

Sherwin: Let’s see, he dies in ’67. Sixty-three, sixty-two. Sixty-two, yeah. Very young.

Kelly: Well, this has been fabulous.

Sherwin: I’m going to say one other thing.

Kelly: Please.

Sherwin: That’s not Oppenheimer-related, but I think it’s always important to make this point if we’re talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What if the bomb had not been used? What if Oppenheimer had argued, “Don’t use it”? What if he had convinced Henry Stimson, for example, the Secretary of War, not to use nuclear weapons, and Stimson had been able to convince Harry Truman and James Byrnes, the Secretary of State, not to use nuclear weapons?

As I said, when the Soviets entered the war, the Japanese would have—they had to surrender. There was no question. The Japanese were even more anti-communist than the Americans were. The thought of the Soviets participating in the occupation was just impossible for the Japanese to accept. They would do anything to avoid that.

After the war, there would have been Congressional hearings. You know, “You spent $2 billion on this weapon. You made it the highest priority of the war. The bomb was ready, and you didn’t use it against the Japanese, who bombed Pearl Harbor, who treated their prisoners of war in such a horrible way, who did all these awful things in China? Explain yourself! Why didn’t we use this weapon that we had?”

Henry Stimson would have been called. Henry Stimson at that time was seventy-seven years old, venerable Secretary of State. He had written a memorandum to Harry Truman, explaining the atomic bomb in April of 1945. In it, he said, “This is a weapon that could save civilization or destroy civilization, depending on how we deal with it.” He would have said that, “Look, the United States is not Japan. We’re not Germany. The atomic bomb was not necessary to use, and no civilized country would use this. This is a weapon beyond the pale. This can destroy civilization. This is a moment in human history where the United States made the right decision not to use the atomic bomb, and we would never do it. We have to lead the world in an effort to get rid of nuclear weapons.”

If nuclear weapons had been introduced to the world as an unacceptable weapon that was not used, even when we could have used it, I submit to you that the history of the world as we know it from 1945 on would have been different, would have been better.

We would not have frightened the Russians, the Soviets, into building a nuclear weapon as quickly as they could. You only have to read David Holloway’s book, Stalin and the Bomb, to understand how Hiroshima and Nagasaki drove the Soviets into putting everything else aside, making it secondary to building a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible, because Stalin was convinced he was next.

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